LEXINGTON — Northeast McLean County is the site of unlikely turf war.
In Chenoa, Lawndale, Lexington and Yates townships, two energy companies are vying to secure property that may be McLean County's next wind farm.
“It’s a land race right now," said Mike Swartz, manager of the McLean County Farm Bureau. "It's all about who can acquire the most land for the towers before the other one.”
The competitors are Houston-based EDP Renewables North America and Chicago-based Invenergy. Both have local experience: EDP owns and operates Twin Groves Wind Farms east of Bloomington-Normal, and Invenergy developed and sold White Oak Energy Center near Carlock.
Both want to install at least 200 megawatts of capacity, or between 83 and 100 2- and 3-megawatt turbines. That could require as much as 35,000 acres of land, said Invenergy Business Development Manager Allyson Sand.
"Yes, there's competition," said Katie Chapman, a project manager for EDP that also is looking for land in Gridley Township.
The area is sought-after because "it is a windy area and there is a transmission line nearby," said David Loomis, director of Illinois State University's Center for Renewable Energy.
EDP got to the area first, in 2008, when the company started securing land leases, and county officials approved the project, then called Bright Stalk Wind Farms, in 2010. That was the last time the county approved a wind farm.
Today, most of those leases have lapsed, and county approval for the project expired after three years.
“We had to let a lot of that land go because the projects didn’t have good prospects. We depend on the energy market, which fluctuates,” said Chapman. “We came back and are refreshing our effort.”
Both companies have held public outreach events for local landowners this spring and early summer, including an EDP landowner dinner on May 5 and an Invenergy open house in Lexington at the end of May. Sand said 80 people attended that event.
“With the landowners mostly being farmers and in the field planting, it’s been harder to get meetings, (but) we’ve been getting a good response and building relationships,” she said.
Unlike White Oak Energy Center, the new Invenergy project would continue to be owned and operated by the company, said Sand.
Some factors that might differentiate offers from the two companies include not only compensation, but "what are the rights allowed to the landowner for their ingress/regress roads and decommissioning,” especially “what is the company doing up front to put money aside for decommissioning,” Swartz said.
In addition to securing land, the companies will need to file agricultural impact mitigation agreements with the state, a new requirement as of this year, and receive approval from the McLean County Board.
Neither has filed paperwork with the county, said Building and Zoning Director Phil Dick.
They could also be subject to a new set of county-level guidelines that are set to be approved by the county board next month. Those include a detailed decommissioning plan and adherence to specified heights and noise levels.
“There’s been concern from some board members about setbacks, especially when it deals with non-participating property owners,” said Jim Soeldner, county board vice chairman.
Anna Ziegler, assistant manager at the farm bureau, said the previous ordinance was vague and “many of the things in our proposed text were imposed by the Zoning Board in previous special use permits,” but the bureau “wanted to make these changes before (EDP and Invenergy) applied.”
The companies also are rushing to receive the maximum federal production tax credit for construction. Wind projects can receive 2.3 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, but that amount will decline 20 percent each year after 2016 as the incentive is phased out.
Both companies hope to finish construction in 2017.
And, both projects could succeed, Loomis said.
"I have seen two wind companies design projects so that they are right next to each other — (in) fact, they look like one big project to the (uninformed) visitor. Sometimes they work things out afterwards, (and) their respective land leases are intermixed," he said. "But the company that has more land leases is in a much stronger position."